Wuhan virus: Outbreak at critical stage as virus mutates, warn health officials

Super-spreaders the biggest concern but no evidence of that yet, say experts

A worker disinfecting an area in the Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan yesterday. The authorities fear the number of infected cases will soar as millions travel across the country during the Chinese New Year holidays.
A worker disinfecting an area in the Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan yesterday. The authorities fear the number of infected cases will soar as millions travel across the country during the Chinese New Year holidays. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Health officials have warned that the Wuhan outbreak has reached a "critical stage", as the virus mutates and the outbreak continues to spread to more provinces, territories and countries.

The United States and Macau registered their first cases yesterday, while infected people have been identified for the first time in Hainan, Fujian, Liaoning and Anhui, widening the number of affected provinces to more than 20.

Hong Kong reported that a man had preliminarily tested positive for the virus, but a final test result would be known only today.

The authorities fear the number of cases will soar as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel across or out of the country during the Chinese New Year holidays.

The death toll climbed to 17 and, as of last night, at least 540 people have tested positive for the 2019-nCoV virus, which scientists have determined is part of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) family.

The National Health Commission's emergency management office director Xu Shuqiang said the country is at a critical stage in its battle to stop the viral outbreak from turning into a pandemic.

The virus is believed to have originated from wild animals sold illegally at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, Hubei province, where the first wave of patients had worked at, said virologist Gao Fu.

"From animal to human, the virus has adapted and evolved. The relationship between viruses and humans is like a cat and mouse game," said Professor Gao, who is director-general of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

While experts said the biggest worry is the emergence of super-spreaders, Prof Gao said there is no evidence of these highly infectious individuals yet, even though 14 healthcare workers were infected by one single carrier in Wuhan.


    Death toll: 17 (all in Hubei)

    Number of confirmed cases in mainland China: 540

    Anhui province: 1

    Beijing: 10

    Chongqing: 6

    Fujian province: 1

    Guangdong province: 26

    Guangxi: 2

    Guizhou province: 1

    Hainan province: 4

    Henan province: 5

    Hubei province: 444

    Hunan province: 4

    Jiangxi province: 2

    Liaoning province: 2

    Ningxia: 1

    Shandong province: 1

    Shanghai: 9

    Shanxi province: 1

    Sichuan province: 5

    Tianjin: 4

    Yunnan province: 1

    Zhejiang province: 10


    Number of confirmed cases outside mainland China: 9

    Macau: 1

    Taiwan: 1

    Thailand: 4

    Japan: 1

    South Korea: 1

    United States: 1

    Figures as at Jan 22, 2020

The World Health Organisation identifies a super-spreader as someone who infects more than 10 secondary contacts.

"We will be monitoring closely because there is the possibility of super-spreaders," said Prof Gao.

Wuhan Mayor Zhang Xianwang said the 14 healthcare workers - a doctor and 13 nurses - were infected by a patient in a neurosurgery ward who had not been tested for the new coronavirus. He developed a fever only after his surgery.

"That was a very profound lesson," said Mr Zhang, who has appealed to people not to travel in or out of the city.

More than 90 per cent of the infection cases have been in Wuhan. The central Chinese city of 11 million has been on high alert as the authorities step up checks on travellers and vehicles.

All trading of wildlife has been banned, and restaurants have been prohibited from serving dishes with the animals.

News that the disease is now being spread through human contact sent jitters across cities, as people rushed out to buy face masks and disinfectants. Phar-macies in Beijing and Shanghai ran low on stocks, especially after the country launched a nationwide hygiene campaign.

Beijing-based insurance agent Kevin Tu, 40, was bent on going home to Wuhan today to spend the new year with his parents. But he sought a refund for his air ticket yesterday after his parents insisted that he stay put in the capital city.

"They were worried about my safety, but I am worried about theirs too. I have told them to stay home as much as possible, and to avoid crowded places," Mr Tu, an only child, told The Straits Times.

On Monday, the health commission upgraded the Wuhan pneumonia to a Class B infectious disease, which puts it in the same category as Sars. But it is handling the outbreak with stricter measures under a Class A category, which stipulates that an infection anywhere in the country must be reported within two hours.

The Class A classification also allows for greater resources to be mobilised.

Ms Jiao Yahui, a health commission official, said while there are hospitals currently designated for treating the pneumonia patients, the authorities' contingency plans include backup hospitals in case the epidemic becomes widespread.

Front-line medical workers including Chinese traditional medi-cine practitioners in Beijing told ST that they have been made to cancel their Chinese New Year leave to be on standby since Tuesday.

Hospitals in the capital city have set up pre-screening triages, and suspected cases are transferred to fever clinics. "We just hope this battle will pass soon," said Chinese traditional medicine physician Jia Xiaoming, 30.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2020, with the headline Wuhan virus: Outbreak at critical stage as virus mutates, warn health officials. Subscribe